Venezuela vote emboldens Chávez

Allies of President Hugo Chávez won 17 of 22 races for governor in Sunday's local elections, but the opposition won the two most populous states.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
Split decision: Leftist leader Hugo Chávez claimed Monday that the vote was an endorsement of his push for '21st-century socialism.'
Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
Opposition winners – including Antonio Ledezma (l.), the new mayor of the capital, Caracas – celebrated their victories.

Allies of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez swept statewide elections Sunday, reaffirming the socialist leader's popularity.

But victories by the opposition in key races, including the mayoral post in Caracas, could prove an obstacle to Mr. Chávez's agenda, which received its first major blow last December after a stinging defeat in a constitutional referendum.

Although Sunday's election was regional, including races for 22 governorships and more than 300 mayoral seats, it was widely seen as a referendum on Chávez's stewardship. The question hanging over the contest was: Did last year's referendum loss represent an anomaly, or would a consecutive loss this year mean that the Chávez era is on the wane?

For now, it seems that question is unanswerable, with both sides digging in their heels in a draw that voters say sets the stage for more political strife.

"There is little hope that the country will become less polarized," says Harry Frontado, an architect in Caracas who says he falls in the middle politically and worries that political fighting bodes ill for the country's advancement. "A road that needs to be fixed is just a road. It does not have colors."

Chávez has spent nearly a decade in power, and his popularity remains solid, with approval ratings ranging from 57 percent by the polling firm Datanalisis to 70 percent by the government's account. It was not until voters rejected his constitutional referendum last year – which would have, among many proposals, ended term limits for presidents – that he suffered his first defeat at the ballot box.

That setback, which a burgeoning student movement helped force, has invigorated a fractured opposition that had not been able to present meaningful competition to Chávez. During regional elections in 2004, Chávez candidates won gubernatorial seats in all but two states. His party also holds almost every seat in the National Assembly.

This race reverberated nationwide, as Chávez turned the vote into a referendum on his popularity. At one point he told voters that the results would affect "the future of the revolution, the future of socialism, and also the future of Hugo Chávez."

José Vicente Carrasquero, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University, says that Chávez-aligned candidates rode on the president's coattails. "It's as if these candidates were an extension of the president," he says.

"The path of building socialism has been endorsed ... and now we will focus on the task of deepening and extending our project," Chávez said.

Opposition leader and former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, took the opposite view: "What's important," he says, "is that the map of Venezuela has started to change."

Though the majority of seats went to Chávez allies, the opposition won the country's two most populous states, Miranda and Zulia, and the mayoral post of Caracas, according to electoral officials, along with claiming two more governorships and another Caracas municipal race. These races are important for what they stand for. "For the opposition, what's important is not so much the size of its victories but symbols," says Luis Vicente Leon, the director of Datanalisis.

Voter turnout Sunday was a record high for local elections, with 65 percent of 16.8 million registered voters showing up at the polls, according to electoral officials. A key to Chávez's defeat last December was a high abstention rate among his supporters, and he campaigned hard to turn out the vote.

Leading up the elections, some 300 candidates, mostly from the opposition, were disqualified from the race on charges such as corruption, giving rise to protests. But the opposition centered its campaign on government failure to control inflation and crime.

The country's annual inflation rate crept up to 36 percent in September, and the homicide rate is the continent's highest. According to Datanalisis, 51 percent of those surveyed consider crime the No. 1 problem in the country.

"It's like we live caged here," says Zully Rodriguez, a young student who lives in a sprawling hillside slum of Caracas. "I never go out at night."

But some of those same voters may have been more concerned that an opposition victory would stop the flow of billions of dollars that Chávez has spent on literacy and health programs for the poor. "Chavistas are convinced that if the opposition makes big inroads, they will use these spaces to agitate against Chávez," says Steven Ellner a political science professor at Venezuela's University of the East.

It remains to be seen how Chávez will forge ahead. But if the past is any indication, he is likely to take radical steps. "After each Chávez triumph, he takes bold initiatives," says Mr. Ellner.

José Orozco contributed to this report.

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